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1920: The Wolf Family Murders, North Dakota

Discussion in 'Historical Cold Cases - Pre 1950' started by Lily, Mar 6, 2018.

  1. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    This case strongly reminds me of the terrible Hinterkaifeck murders in Bavaria just two years later, in 1922. There's several points of comparison, including the way the bodies were laid out, and involvement of the barn.

    I consider this unsolved, despite a suspect being jailed, as it's fairly obvious he was coerced both physically and mentally into confessing.

    The Murdered Family

    By Paulette Tobin - Ndsu.edu

    Probably everyone who grew up at Turtle Lake, N.D., has heard the story of the murdered family, an immigrant Germans-from-Russia farmer and his wife who were brutally slain on their homestead along with five of their daughters and their hired boy.

    Author and former UND professor Vernon Keel certainly did. He grew up in Turtle Lake, driving tractor and doing farm work for his half-brothers before leaving in 1958 to join the Navy. He knew the place three miles north of Turtle Lake, where Jakob and Beata Wolf and their family had lived and died.

    "You grew up being very much aware of this tragic story," Keel said in an interview from his home in Denver. "You would find yourself at the cemetery from time to time where they were buried. When I was growing up, it was overgrown with lilacs."

    Small markers

    There, eight small markers and a large monument mark the Wolfs' resting place. Part of the inscription on the big stone says: "Die Ermordete Familie" - "The Murdered Family."

    "The Murdered Family" is the title Keel chose for his book, now in bookstores, written as historical fiction about those sorrowful, terrifying events. The book's release closely coincides with the 90th anniversary of the murders April 22.

    The crime was discovered by friends of the family who went to check on them after Jakob Wolf failed to pick up a piece of farm equipment he had intended to borrow. What they found at the Wolf farm was straight out of a horror movie. Jakob and Beata; their daughters, Bertha, 12; Maria, 9; Edna, 7; Liddia, 5; and Martha, 3; and their 13-year-old hired boy, Jacob Hofer, a relative by marriage, had all been shot to death. The only survivor was the Wolf's 8-month old daughter, Emma, found crying and hungry in her crib.

    Just three weeks later, eager investigators had gotten a signed confession from Henry Layer, a neighbor farmer who had a quarrel with Jakob Wolf. At the time, The New York Times called it "the most rapid administration of justice in the country." Layer was immediately sentenced to the North Dakota Penitentiary, where he died in 1925.

    Keel's father, who was 55 years old when Vernon was born, had known the Wolfs and Henry Layer. He had visited Layer in prison. When Keel asked, his father would tell him what he knew about the crimes.

    Years passed, and Keel, with a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, taught media law and headed journalism and communication schools at South Dakota State University, UND and Wichita State University. Whenever Keel thought of stories he'd like to research and write, the murdered family from his own hometown came to mind.

    When he actually began investigating, the story turned out to have some surprises.

    In 2008, doing research at the UND library, Keel found a copy of the Bismarck Tribune from 1920 that had a story about the murders that included a copy of Henry Layer's confession.

    Later, Keel learned from longtime attorney Jack Mc-Donald in Bismarck that Layer had spent the rest of his life in prison trying to appeal that confession to the North Dakota Supreme Court. Layer denied his guilt and said he had confessed under duress, intimidation and fear. He'd been beaten by officers, forced to stare at pictures of the victims and told an angry mob was waiting outside the jail to lynch him if he was released. Layer said authorities told him the penitentiary was the safest place for him to wait for things to die down. Then, he was told, he could file a change of plea and receive a jury trial, Keel said.

    Physical evidence

    There was no physical evidence to connect Layer to the murders. But people were scared and investigators and others wanted the case resolved quickly.

    "The cast of characters was one of the things I found really fascinating," Keel said. "This murder and this investigation were tied up in the nature of the political struggles that were going on at the time."

    In 1915, the Non-partisan League had been formed in North Dakota and its candidate, Lynn Frazier, became governor. William Langer, later governor and senator, was attorney general at the time of the murders and was about to try to oust Frazier. After Langer, William Lemke, later a congressman, was attorney general over the case.

    "These were pretty high-powered politicians who had ambitions to go on in government and, in fact, did." Keel said.


    This video is very well reasearched, and is worth watching.

    Whatsnext, Blue G 3, Rain and 2 others like this.
  2. Rain

    Rain Member

    I had not heard about this before. My mothers side were Germans in Russia. Who immigrated to north Dakota.
    Then the other side were Norwegians in North dakota
    Lily and SheWhoMustNotBeNamed like this.
  3. Blue G 3

    Blue G 3 Well-Known Member

    Thanks Lily, Akoya, and Romulus for posting these threads. I've always been fascinated by historical unsolved cases. :)
    Mel70, Whatsnext, Lily and 2 others like this.
  4. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    And thank you for adding to the forum!
    Mel70 and Whatsnext like this.
  5. Mel70

    Mel70 Bronze Member

    This does remind me of the "Hinterkaifek" too "Lily" so creepily similar. Just the randomness, But killing method completely different. Leaving the Infant alive suggests to me it was someone the Family knew, And She was the only one who couldn't talk. And they were Shot indicating they didn't have to have to have direct contact with the victims. And also "Unsolved". And I think at this point both Cases never will be.
    Last edited: May 8, 2019
  6. Mel70

    Mel70 Bronze Member

    LOL! I love Her! She doesn't mince words and doesn't take any crap.
  7. Mel70

    Mel70 Bronze Member

    It is strange the alleged feud started over the neighbors Dog attacking their Cattle that wandered onto his property. It was stated they were "Trained Herding Dogs". They had to have been trained to attack, Because "Herding Dogs" don't attack. They "Herd". They will nip at a "Cows" back Heels. But a Farmer will usually try to break this behavior because a Cow will kick back, And will alot of times kill the Dog. My Grandparents had a "Border Collie" for 17 years. They were trying to break this "Nipping" behavior and she got kicked and sent back several feet. They thought she was dead. Luckily she was just knocked out and had no injuries. But She never did it again. None of the Cows prior were ever injured by Her.
    Lily likes this.
  8. Mel70

    Mel70 Bronze Member

    I think Her theory of someone wanting the Farm makes sense. It is odd She couldn't find who bought the Property just 2 weeks after the Murders and all of the evidence was not kept. Someone high up in Society that had alot to lose?. Without any information, We will never know and I think that's what they were counting on.
    Lily likes this.
  9. Mel70

    Mel70 Bronze Member

    Whoa. They too were attacked with an "Axe". This is extreme anger. And to Children. But again, They could talk. And this person couldn't afford that. Why use a "Shotgun" reload it 3 times and still use an "Axe"?. Did they have an accomplice that was promised something in return?. I don't think this was random. And selling the Property when the only remaining Family member was a mere 8-9 Months old. There were no provisions made for her. Further leaning me toward "Greed". I wouldn't be surprised if someone had offered to buy the Property and "Jakob" refused and they weren't going to take NO for an answer.

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